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Killing Joke

Replacing the angst of punk-rock with apocalyptic doom mongering, KILLING JOKE were akin to a sonically disturbing, industrialised BLACK SABBATH or The Banshees (without the glamour of SIOUXSIE, of course). Now regarded as a catalytic classic in metal circles, frontman Jaz Coleman and Co also inspired many US hardcore acts, as well as big guns such as MINISTRY, METALLICA, SOUNDGARDEN and NIRVANA.
Formed in October 1978, Notting Hill, London, singer of Bengali descent Coleman (also occasional keys/synths) and drummer Paul Ferguson (ex-Mat Stagger Band) added guitarist Geordie (alias Kevin Walker) and bassist Youth (alias Martin Glover). They played their inaugural gig supporting The RUTS and The SELECTER at Cheltenham’s Witcombe Lodge on 4th August ’79. After borrowing money to finance a record label in order to release their debut 3-track EP (led by the dub-friendly `Turn To Red’; b/w `Nervous System’ and `Are You Receiving’), the group were the subject of some interest from Radio 1 disc-jockey John Peel, who championed their alternative rock sound on his night time programme. This healthy patronage almost immediately led to KILLING JOKE signing a deal at Island Records, who re-issued tracks `Nervous System’ and `Turn To Red’ as a 7-inch, and added `Almost Red’, plus the aforementioned remaining track on a 12-inch platter. While supporting the likes of JOY DIVISION and The RUTS respectively, the band released a follow-up double A-sided single, `Wardance’ (b/w: the exclusive `Pssyche’), resurrecting their own Malicious Damage label in the process. The left-field E.G. operation – then home to ENO – were quick to spot the group’s post-punk potential, taking on both the band and their fledgling imprint.
The first results of this partnership came in the shape of their fourth release, `Requiem’, the opening salvo from their pioneering eponymous Top 40 album, KILLING JOKE (1980) {*9}. Dealing with pollution, politics and pretentiousness, tracks such `Wardance’ and `The Wait’ were borderline metal, while `Tomorrow’s World’ and the synth/sample-heavy `S.O. 36’ (at nigh on 7 minutes), had their own sombre beats and maniacal manifesto.
By the release of Top 50 follow-up set, WHAT’S THIS FOR…! (1981) {*8}, KJ had taken their occult punk-like chants/anthems to extreme new dimensions. Nevertheless, they retained a strange accessibility which saw the single, `Follow The Leaders’, attaining a minor UK chart placing and, incredibly, a hit on the American dancefloors! Frenetic and threatening, Jaz’s distorted voice ranged high over a drum-heavy/guitar-grinding backdrop on the likes of `The Fall Of Because’, `Tension’ and the storming `Unspeakable’. Embracing some “Faith Healer”/SAHB-vibe, `Butcher’ mined a nightmarish chainsaw massacre vision, while the subliminal chant of `Who Told You How?’ spared no compromise.
A third set, REVELATIONS (1982) {*6}, eased up a little on the intensity factor, although it peaked at No.12, having already spawned another modest hit single, `Empire Song’. Recorded in Cologne, Germany with Conny Plank taking over on production, paranoia and pressure were keywords for `We Have Joy’, `Hum’ and flop 45 `Chop-Chop’. Side two had its moments, but nothing coherent and flowing as their past masters (the speed-freak `Land Of Milk Of Honey’ the exception to the rule).
Convinced of imminent world destruction, the Aleister Crowley/occult-fixated Coleman remained in Iceland after a tour, as did Geordie. Disillusioned by all the shenanigans, Youth initially returning home after following his leader to the frozen north. Alongside Paul Ferguson (briefly), Marcus Myers and Stephane Holweck, the bassist formed BRILLIANT; Youth would later become a workhorse producer and session man. In the meantime, Paul Raven (ex-NEON HEARTS) – son of folk singer Jon Raven – was found, as filler Guy Pratt joined ICEHOUSE. It would take several months of persuading before Paul Raven and a returning Ferguson would convince Messrs Coleman and Walker to return to English shores from their mystical sojourn. Re-entering the studio with said Plank, with a view to recording new material, only the minor hit single `Birds Of A Feather’ surfaced, although a concert mini-set, “HA” – KILLING JOKE LIVE (1982) {*6} – recorded live at Larry’s Hideaway, Toronto, that August – marked a bit of time.
Roping in co-producer John Porter (and not Plank), the resulting fourth album, FIRE DANCES (1983) {*8}, managed to scrape into the Top 30, its slight lack of experimentation possibly a hangover from their northern treks. Still, in the near Top 50 anthem, `Let’s All Go (To The Fire Dances)’, a glorious tribal rhythm was unearthed. Ditto, opener `The Gathering’, `Fun And Games’ and the BOWIE-beaten `Dominator’. A visceral urgency – Banshees-style – was also found on the mightiest tunes on board, `Frenzy’, `Harlequin’ and `Feast Of Blaze’.
KILLING JOKE released only two 45s in 1984 (after the exclusive `Me Or You?’), both of them, `Eighties’ and `A New Day’ (minor hits also), were showcased in all their eccentric glory on Channel 4’s new pop programme, The Tube. Having overcome the mental obstacle of Orwell’s 1984 (and all of its apocalyptic implications), a singing! Coleman and Co unleashed their most focused work to date in NIGHT TIME (1985) {*7} – a near Top 10 album. The attendant and edited `Love Like Blood’ single premiered the set while also breaking into the Top 20. More in line with The CURE and the many indie/alternative acts coming out of the woodwork, the balance was just about perfect for `Kings And Queens’, the screeching `Tabazan’ and the title track.
Also in the production hands of Chris Kimsey, 1986’s BRIGHTER THAN A THOUSAND SUNS (1986) {*4} fell short of critical plaudits and commercial target figures, and it seemed KILLING JOKE were indeed running on empty in the rock-rage department. Failing to breech the Top 50, only opener `Adorations’, `Sanity’ and `Wintergardens’ possessed any lasting nadir quality. They were simply not going to be the next SIMPLE MINDS or U2.
Trimming to a tidier trio when Ferguson bailed, then they were two when Raven also bailed as Jaz and Geordie pieced together the astonishingly claustrophobic OUTSIDE THE GATE (1988) {*3}. Taking a more self-indulgent synth/keyboard-orientated approach, Jaz played his biggest role yet, performing a la FREDDIE MERCURY at-the-opera style, a brave but ill-suited affair when one took in opening gambits `America’ and `My Love Of This Land’ – their worst singles by a long chalk.
Limited to vinyl, the double LP THE COURTAULD TALKS (1989) {*1} – a live spoken-word lecture at London’s Courtauld Institute on 19th September 1987 – was a pretentious Jaz laid bare affair (backed sparsely by Geordie and percussionist Jeff Scantlebury); anyone awaiting a proper KILLING JOKE set would be very disappointed. In the meantime, Jaz and Geordie were back in live action in December 1988 with drummer Martin Atkins (ex-PUBLIC IMAGE LTD, ex-BRIAN BRAIN) and bassist Dave “Taif” Ball, who’d come in at short notice for very brief member Andy Rourke (ex-SMITHS). Following further personnel upheavals, the group (or what was left of it!) decided to take a brief sabbatical; Jaz finding time to release a collaborative album, `Songs From The Victorious City’ (1990), with ANNE DUDLEY (ex-ART OF NOISE). KILLING JOKE re-grouped after abandoning German sessions; Taif left to be superseded by old hand Raven.
Opening with `Money Is Not Our God’, the harsher EXTREMITIES, DIRT AND VARIOUS REPRESSED EMOTIONS (1990) {*6} felt like something closer to SWANS or MINISTRY. The effect of chaos around the world, the changing of the guard in music terms from heavy-metal to grunge, and so on, had changed most group’s perspectives on life, while KILLING JOKE counter-balanced with `The Beautiful Dead’, `Age Of Greed’ and `Struggle’.
Having spent most of the early 90s globetrotting in various exotic locations while taking some time out (Atkins bailed to find work with MINISTRY and as PIGFACE), the original KILLING JOKE alumni re-united with Jaz, Geordie and Youth; an array of drummers such as Geoff Dugmore (from ART OF NOISE) and Hossam Ramzy were drafted in to suit.
1994’s PANDEMONIUM {*7} was given the thumbs up by critics and the public alike, their biggest selling album for nigh on a decade reaching No.16. The title track cracked the Top 30, while the previous taster `Millennium’ hit Top 40 status. An American release was granted on Zoo Records, and in its Arabian-like post-industrial pieces such as `Communion’, `Labyrinth’ and `Jana’ (not forgetting the angst-ridden `Whiteout’), it was indeed thrilling to hear Jaz’s doomsday vocals croak and soar once again.
Another, increasingly metallic/industrial set, DEMOCRACY {*6} followed in 1996, but in terms of sales it slightly choked. Coleman was now spending the bulk of his time in New Zealand, where he was composer in residence for the country’s Symphony Orchestra, while he’d also stayed in Sedona, Arizona to pick up roots into the native American culture. Youth on production, the tribal rhythms of the group (including 4th member Geoff Dugmore), the fire-brand dragon larynx of Jaz and the brutal attacks on the day’s politics, left one thinking that `Another Bloody Election’ was NIRVANA turning Lemmy, while the title track and the 8-minute `Aeon’ guaranteed flow and primeval reverberation.
Another 7-year itch finally discarded into the realms of time, the confusingly-titled KILLING JOKE (2003) {*7} set saw Jaz, Geordie and Youth being joined by a returning Paul Raven and guest drummer Dave Grohl (FOO FIGHTERS). If the stark title harked back to their classic 1980 debut, the uncompromising likes of `Total Invasion’ and `Asteroid’ – sharpened by an Andy Gill co-production (with Youth) – seemed to suggest they’d come full circle, updating the steam-rolling sound which initially made their name. Mixed reviews from the uninitiated led to it faltering just short of the Top 40, but its most uncomfortable and uncompromising moments came in the shape of `Loose Cannon’ and the shimmering `You’ll Never Get To Me’.
The celebratory XXV GATHERING! {*6} – recorded in January 2005 at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire – was best experienced on DVD rather than CD, but that took nothing away from the screaming, fist-pumping of `Wardance’ and several “greatest hits”. Although 2006’s studio comeback for Cooking Vinyl, HOSANNAS FROM THE BASEMENTS OF HELL {*7}, was a kind of “back-to-basements” set, recorded on vintage equipment for that unmistakable, ungodly grind of yore. Paul Raven was retained when Youth had other commitments; drummer Ben Calvert pounding away on such trudge-worthy cuts as the title track, `Implosion’ and `Majestic’. Surging forward into a sonic abyss, the hardcore-metal Jaz and KILLING JOKE were as intense and detoxifying by way of `The Tribal Antidote’ to bookend piece `Gratitude’.
The group were hit hard by the news on 20th October 2007, that Paul Raven had died of heart failure while in Geneva, Switzerland. Attending his funeral, Jaz, Geordie, Youth and Paul Ferguson all decided that the best way forward would be to re-form the original line-up. After testing the feasibility on the live rehearsals set DUENDE – THE SPANISH SESSIONS (2008) {*6} and the live quadruple-CD package, THE GATHERING 2008 (2009) {*6}, the quartet were ready to unveil fresh songs.
From taster EP, `In Excelsis’, to their first studio set for 28 years in their original incarnation, ABSOLUTE DISSENT (2010) {*8} combined accessible retro-rhythms with Jaz’s stark slab’s of wasteland, post-apocalyptic lyrics. When choosing to “sing”, Jaz let his larynx speak to the masses, especially on the tribute piece `The Raven King’, and others such as `Here Comes The Singularity’, while his gritty growl boomed on manic metal slices, `The Great Cull’ and `This World Hell’.
Back in the Top 50 a la MMXII (2012 – duh!) {*8}, even Rolling Stone and Kerrang! agreed on the merits of the set, their second for Spinefarm Records. Massive in places like Finland where they toured incessantly, the concept was of today’s corruption lying within capitalism and the world’s geographical axis; `Pole Shift’, `FEMA Camp’ and `In Cythera’, not quite restoring the biosphere by song, but an attempt to shake up the listener. Politically charged and looking over the horizon for hope rather than despair, KILLING JOKE re-fuelled from the air we breathe rather than the life we suck out of the planet.
Cocked and loaded and as menacingly nihilistic as on previous equipollent earworms, 2015’s Top 20 set PYLON {*8} commandeered as much attention and column inches as their debut from exactly 35 years ago. Boasting abrasive instrumentalism mirrored with Jaz’s “hosanna in excelsis” howls/growls (on `Euphoria’ and `New Jerusalem’ for example), the po-faced KILLING JOKE checked in and out of heavy-metal’s riff-rigid clinic on the bone-busting `Autonomous Zone’, `Dawn Of The Hive’, `Delete’ and the topical `I Am The Virus’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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